The Best Interviews in The Paris Review

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In 1953, three American ex-pats (Harold “Doc” Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton) decided to start a magazine that would promote, as the author William Styron confirmed in the first issue, “the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.” The spring issue of the Paris Review is out now, so we decided to make a list of notable interviews in the venerable literary quarterly. The best of “the art of fiction” contains writers from the past 58 years of its publication; they all have a way of commanding the page that is entirely their own, and this quality is reflected in each author’s interview style. Nabokov is authoritative yet bemused, Didion has a terse way of speaking that is plagued with anxiety, and Vonnegut is playful, despite the conversation about the bombing of Dresden. And, as the publication date for The Pale King approaches, we realized the Paris Review missed its chance to interview David Foster Wallace. We can only imagine how the late author would have approached the conversation. Would there have been footnotes? We hope so.

1. Jonathan Franzen in Issue 195

Stephen Burn interviews Jonathan Franzen in the second issue of Lorin Stein’s tenure as editor last winter. Franzen says, “Layer by layer, I built up the masks. Like with papier-mâché, strip after strip, molding ever more lifelike features, in order to perform the otherwise unperformable personal drama.”

2. Vladimir Nabokov in Issue 41

Herbert Gold interviews Vladimir Nabokov about Lolita, Russia, his contemporaries, and his approach to writing for the 1967 Summer/Fall issue. Nabokov says, “Let me suggest that the very term ‘everyday reality’ is utterly static since it presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.”

3. Marilynne Robinson in Issue 186

Sarah Fay interviews Marilynne Robinson, the novelist and committed Calvinist, for the Fall 2008 issue. At this time, Philip Gourevitch was the editor. Robinson says, “In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking.”

4. Michel Houellebecq in Issue 194

The interview opens with Michel Houllebecq asking his interviewer, Susannah Hunnewell, if she likes the Stooges (Iggy Pop is pictured with Houllebecq above). The French novelist later admits, “I am a curmudgeonly pain in the ass because I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or to believe there is a truth beyond science.”

5. William Faulkner in Issue 12

Jean Stein interviews William Faulkner for the Spring 1956 issue. The bombastic Southerner usually shuns interviews, admitting “I seem to react violently to personal questions.” Later on, Faulkner maintains, “The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said.”

6. Kurt Vonnegut in Issue 69

“I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

7. Ralph Ellison in Issue 8

Alfred Chester and Vilma Howard both interview Ralph Ellison for the Spring 1955 issue, two years after Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Ellison says, “Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience’s presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro’s humanity.”

8. Jorge Luis Borges in Issue 40

Ronald Christ interviews Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires for the Winter-Spring 1967 issue. Borges admits, “You can slave away at it and change every adjective to some other adjective, but perhaps you can write better if you leave the mistakes.”

9. Toni Morrison in Issue 128

Claudia Brodsky Lacour and Elissa Schappell interview Toni Morrison in her office at Princeton for the Fall 1993 issue. Morrison says, “The difficulty for me in writing — among the difficulties — is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said.”

10. Joan Didion in Issue 74

Linda Kuehl interviews Joan Didion for the Fall-Winter 1978 issue, but Didion writes the introduction since Kuehl committed suicide soon after the tapes were transcribed. Didion says, “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

As you may notice, there have been some glaring omissions. We’d like you to chime in if you think we’ve missed someone.